Distrust of the government is real, especially when it comes to prosecutors and judges in a criminal case. The defendant and his/her family and supporters often assume that the system is crooked against them, for reasons that are both complex and simple. I, unfortunately, created that perception, that is the subject of this column, and although I apologized, I still think about it to this day.
I had just participated in a jury trial of a young man for a capital offense. The jury had deliberated and come to the decision that the young man was guilty. He wasn’t evil, but he had done the deed and was about to be severely punished. The judge had taken a short break to give everyone time to cool their emotions and let the decision of the jury seep in. Plus, it gave the jury time to get out of the building. Defendant’s family and friends would stay in the courtroom since sentencing was to be held in a few minutes instead of following jurors out to their cars, so it wasn’t a bad idea to take that short break.
One thing that most lawyers can do is separate their legal lives and their personal lives. I can represent a defendant but still get along with the prosecutor, or vice versa. I can talk about Case X to the prosecutor during a break in the trial of Case Y. I can joke with the other side about something stupid they (or I) did during the trial. Most lawyers don’t get their feelings hurt and just laugh, because they know it is true.
While the judge was taking the break, the young man’s family and friends were clustered around each other, discussing the verdict that had just happened. The judge had no choice but to sentence the young man to life in prison. I don’t know if the family knew that or not. But my chief assistant and I were joking about something that had happened at the office. We were laughing and chuckling, with our backs to the family. I did not realize that I was offending them, but one of them came up and pulled me aside. He said that the family respected me and felt like I had been fair, but that I was aggravating them now.
I walked over to the family and gave them as heartfelt an apology as I could. I explained that what we had been cutting up over had nothing to do with their child, but that it was a mistake on my part and I apologized. I was being disrespectful and inconsiderate, and I was offered my sincerest apology. Some were grateful, others less so. But that was all I could do right then.
When Judge Nunn came back into the courtroom, I offered my apology to the family in front of the judge. Legally, I didn’t need to do that, but two things happened. One, I hoped the family realized that the system wasn’t out to get them, but that a human being had made a mistake and apologized. Two, I knew that by doing it that way, I wouldn’t ever do that again, and I don’t think I ever did.
We all make mistakes. An apology helps, but it may not cure things. But it starts with an apology.